What Can We Build Instead of Jails?

Amanda Alexander

In July, bulldozers began tearing down the partially-built “fail jail” that has stood in downtown Detroit for years. There’s video footage of the demolition online, and it’s captivating. It shows just how easy it is to tear down a jail. For anyone with a family member behind bars who has projected their love through concrete walls, down usurious phone lines, through visiting room glass: if you felt your love was stronger, more enduring than these walls, you were right. These are flimsy steel skeletons. They can come to dust in days.

Now that the “fail jail” is gone, the question is: what will Detroit build next? In recent years we’ve learned—more acutely than ever—what jails do to individuals, families, local economies, and communities. We’ve learned how adept cages are at breaking bodies and spirits, how they steal breath and the will to live, how they conceal sexual assault and perpetuate misery. In 2018, we could learn from the mistakes of our past, or we could continue down the failed path of mass incarceration. As of now, Wayne County and Dan Gilbert’s Rock Ventures are intent on building a $533-million “Criminal Justice Complex” that includes a new 2280-bed adult jail and 160-bed youth jail. The complex threatens to expand, rather than reduce, Detroit’s incarcerated population; Wayne County’s current jail population is between only 1,600 and 1,700 people, and that number has been decreasing over the past 12 years.

Detroiters know building a new jail isn’t in the city’s best interests, and we asked them to share their alternative visions as part of a Juneteenth celebration this summer called, “Nothing To Lose But Our Chains.” The event, held at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, was hosted by several organizations that are part of a growing coalition to halt new jail construction. In a video produced by Complex Movements, community members shared their ideas for what Detroit could build instead of a new jail:

Instead of building a new jail, we need to fund teacher professional development around restorative practices.

Instead of a new jail, we should build fully funded daycare centers.

Instead of new jails, we need housing and no homelessness.

Instead of a new jail in Detroit we should fund bringing back conflict resolution in Detroit schools.

Instead of a new jail, we need community healing spaces for physical and mental and spiritual health where people aren’t stigmatized for what they’re carrying.

Instead of a new jail, we need public transportation that is quick, reliable, and spans the whole community and the city.

When asked what we could build that would make them feel safe and valued, Detroiters are full of ideas. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change course. What could Detroit build instead of a new jail? We’re limited only by our imaginations.


Amanda Alexander, founding Executive Director of the Detroit Justice Center, is a racial justice lawyer who works alongside community-based movements to end mass incarceration and build thriving and inclusive cities. Amanda launched the Prison & Family Justice Project at University of Michigan Law School to provide legal representation to incarcerated parents, and advocate for families divided by the prison and foster care systems.    

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